Useful insights often must be seen through a glass darkly. But some can be pulled through the smoke and mirrors shrouding the wanderings of Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri, who is now back home in Iran after 14 months in the U.S. as guest of the CIA.
The confusing/amusing spin applied by both countries to L' Affaire Amiri can detract from the real issues. The facts beneath the competing narratives permit a key conclusion; namely, that U.S. intelligence has learned nothing to change its assessment that Iran halted work on the nuclear-weapons related part of its nuclear development program in the fall of 2003 and has not restarted that work.
That twin judgment leaped out of a formal National Intelligence Estimate, "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," approved unanimously by all 16 U.S intelligence agencies in November 2007.
That NIE substituted a rigorous evidence-based approach for the knee-jerk premise of earlier estimates that Iran had already decided to develop nuclear weapons and the question was just when, not if, it would eventually acquire them.
The NIE began with these words:
"We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons...
"We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons...
"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005."
That is not what President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had been telling the world, preferring to hyperbolize the danger from Iran's nuclear "weapons" program. Indeed, visiting Israel in January 2008, Bush said he did not believe the NIE's key judgments, and actually apologized to the Israelis for the unfortunate Estimate.
But the word was out and it put the kibosh on White House/neocon plans to manufacture/embellish an imminent nuclear threat from Iran, to look the other way as the Israelis attacked, and to then spring to the aid of our Israeli "ally," even though there is no bilateral defense treaty requiring that.
The timely publication of the NIE's key judgments played a key role in scuttling plans of those in Washington and Tel Aviv to prevent/pre-empt the ostensibly urgent, but actually bogus, threat from Iran.
U.S. Military Prevented War
Keenly aware of the disaster that would ensue if Israel and fellow travelers in Washington persuaded President Bush to attack Iran or encourage Israel to do so, senior U.S. military leaders joined with those in Congress who had originally requested the NIE and pressed successfully for releasing the key judgments to the public.
The key judgments were declassified - without the kind of dishonest editing featured in the declassified summary of the infamous NIE five years earlier, exaggerating the threat from Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" by eliminating the doubts expressed by some of the intelligence agencies.
This time around, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has been expressing increasing nervousness that Israel might attack Iran and draw U.S. forces into a war that could make Iraq and Afghanistan seem like volleyball games.
Like former CENTCOM commander Adm. William "we're-not-going-to-do-Iran-on-my-watch" Fallon, Mullen abhor the notion of being on the receiving end of orders putting U.S. forces at war with Iran.
Mullen and Fallon got then-Director of National Intelligence, retired Adm. Mike McConnell to reverse his openly expressed opposition to making the November 2007 NIE judgments public. In sum, those honest judgments, and their publication, helped thwart the plans of Cheney and Bush to attack Iran in 2008.
Later, Cheney admitted publicly that he was pressing at the time for military action against Iran, but was overruled by Bush. The President then dispatched Adm. Mullen to Israel to tell the Israelis: Don't Even Think of It. Which Mullen was happy to do.
The cast of characters on the intelligence side - and in the military hierarchy - is different now. For instance, CENTCOM commander Fallon was cashiered in March 2008 for his outspokenness against going to war with Iran.
Also, during the exhaustive, bottom-up assessment in 2007 of Iran's nuclear plans, Tom Fingar of the State Department was Director of the National Intelligence Council and led the effort. In the process, he was able to demonstrate that the U.S. intelligence community was still capable of delivering honest, professional analysis and that it could summon the courage to face down the most intense political pressure and insist on telling it like it is.
By pulling together hard fact and experienced analysis, that NIE put an iron bar into the wheel spokes of the juggernaut that had begun rolling toward a disastrous war with Iran. Though himself a man of faith, Fingar had nothing but contempt for the kind of "faith-based intelligence" that helped grease the skids for the disaster in Iraq.
As for the intelligence on Iraq, recall that Sen. Jay Rockefeller, announcing the bipartisan findings of an exhaustive, five-year Senate Intelligence Committee study of the use of intelligence leading up to attack on Iraq, added this remark:
"In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed."
Rockefeller was, of course, right. In the Estimate on Iran, in contrast, Fingar and his analysts had too much integrity to succumb to the political pressures to which their predecessors bent.
Updated Estimate on Iran
NIEs like the controversial one on Iran are periodically updated. The Fingar-led bottom-up assessment of 2007 does not need to be replicated. Rather, an Estimate now under way is adopting the intelligence analysis art form of a "Memorandum to Holders" of the previous NIE, updating it, as necessary. Drafting began many months ago, but the deadline has been slipping - as is always the case with NIEs on Iran. According to press reports three months ago, the latest target date for completion is August.
The press is also saying that this time the Obama administration will not make public the key judgments.
Why the delay-and the secrecy? I believe the answer is straightforward. Reading the signs, I think it a safe assumption that an honest Memorandum to Holders could fit on one page, the thrust of which would be: We have received no evidence that requires revision of the key judgments of the November 2007 NIE on Iran.
Indeed, in congressional testimony earlier this year, then-Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair, to his credit, said essentially that, amid mainstream press reporting alleging a need to make the Estimate more ominous.
It seems a safe bet that one reason Blair was given his walking papers two months ago is that, in the opinion of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and his neocon friends, the retired admiral was not sufficiently malleable. The nominee to replace Blair, retired Gen. James Clapper, and his current boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates each hold well earned PhDs in malleability.
If integrity holds in the ranks of intelligence analysts, a Memorandum to Holders update could turn out to be just as controversial - and just as disappointing to those wishing to attack Iran - as the NIE of 2007, which contradicted what Bush and Cheney had been saying in exaggerating the threat from Iran.
From the perspective of the hawks, therefore, it's better to delay. Better to take more time to seek out managers and analysts with more flexible consciences than those of the now-retired Tom Fingar, the now-cashiered Adm. Blair, and the just-one-day-on-the-job-as-Director-of-the-National-Intelligence-Council-before-the-neocons-got-him Chas Freeman (a man for all seasons, and perfect man for these times).
Better to take more time to seek additional "evidence" that may be uncorroborated, contradicted, or even non-existent, but nonetheless good enough for use with the Fawning Corporate Media and other fans of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Looking for a Curveball
A brief refresher for those who have put out of mind the lead-up to the attack on Iraq: Curveball was the name assigned to a defector who provided detailed reporting on those "mobile chemical warfare laboratories," which were rendered by CIA graphic artists into visuals to accompany Secretary of State Colin Powell's bogus presentation to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003.
The biological weapons labs did not exist, but the images helped to get a war started the following month. Smoke and mirrors can be consequential.
It is likely that Obama administration hawks directed CIA operatives to see Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri in this context. Would he be willing to adduce what Sen. Rockefeller called "non-existent" intelligence about an urgent nuclear threat from Iran?
From the looks of it, some officials inside U.S. intelligence tried to persuade Amiri to play that kind of role - apparently in vain. Looking for a Curveball, the CIA got a change-up slider - one that slid away without agreeing to provide the "evidence" that might "justify" attacking Iran.
The Fawning Corporate Media has apparently been pre-briefed to expect the Memorandum to Holders to be much scarier than the NIE of almost three years ago. For example, the New York Times on Friday reported that the intelligence community "is likely to back away from some of the conclusions in the earlier document."
So hold onto your hats. I'm waiting for arch-neoconservative Ken Adelman, erstwhile clone of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to arise from - and dust off - the ashes of Iraq to reassure us that attacking Iran, too, will be a "cake walk."
What is abundantly clear is that Israel and the neocons are determined to ratchet up the conclusions of the 2007 NIE and make them sound far more ominous in the Memorandum to Holders.
And if no one better than Amiri shows up, they can always make him into Curveball #2 anyway, and then order the excellent CIA graphics shoppe to create artists renderings of the kind they did for Curveball's imaginary mobile chemical weapons labs. (The danger here is that this ruse would be all too reminiscent of Powell's bravura performance in February 2003.)
If the White House decides that a Curveball #2 approach might be so obvious as to backfire and perhaps even raise doubts even among the stenographers of the FCM, administration's hawks would probably opt for further delay in drafting the Memorandum to Holders, allowing more time to bring on board more malleable managers, to twist the arms of intelligence analysts, and to leak to the FCM how the updated estimate is sure to abandon the findings of the NIE from 2007.
If I am right in surmising that there has been no reliable intelligence requiring change in the NIE's key judgments, publication (or, more likely) leaking of an honest Memorandum to Holders could again thwart the Israelis and those who are encouraging an attack on Iran.
There's also the risk to the hawks that a Memorandum that included "uncorroborated, contradicted, and non-existent" intelligence could become an object of ridicule before it provoked another Middle East conflict. Honest analysts pressured to manufacture such evidence might well decide to share their experience with honest journalists (as a few tried to do in 2002-2003 although the warnings were mostly drowned out by the exciting stampede to war). And, given the current dearth of honest journalists in the FCM, analysts might choose to share their chagrin with websites like Wikileaks to expose the latest charade.
As for the role of intelligence, we are likely to learn in the coming weeks whether the senior officials in charge of NIEs and Memoranda to Holders are in the mold of Tom Fingar or, conversely, of George Tenet and his top lieutenants - hangers-on like John Brennan who is now President Barack Obama's right-hand man for intelligence, now working at the National Security Council.
Tenet and his merry men and women were able to persuade themselves that once the President decided to go to war, their job was to create "intelligence" to "justify" it, so the case made to the American people would be a "slam-dunk."
The next war hangs largely on whether U.S. intelligence analysts with integrity are allowed to ply their trade without fear or favor; or, failing that, whether they will decide to give priority to the supervening value of preventing another unnecessary war, as opposed to keeping a promise not to divulge classified information. Most of them are well aware that all too often such information is stamped "SECRET" simply to keep the truth from the American people.
A shorter, early version of this article first appeared on Consortiumnews.com.